In Kazachstan, the relatively low number of cases could be the result of an open governance strategy.

Speaking at the Virtual COVID-19 Summit back in March, Singularity University’s Alex Gladstein identified two principal axis in our fight against the novel coronavirus: competency and openness. To be at least moderately successful in managing public health amidst pandemic, governments should either be competent (e.g. Chinese response) or open, or both. In that regard, Gladstein was worried about the US response (which by then already did not appear to be particularly competent) and the potential Russian response (which at that point could go either way).

Nearly two months later, his words ring true, to some extent. After all, the US currently maintains the number one spot on the Worldometer coronavirus page, while Russia is now firmly in the Top 3 by the number of detected cases. However, the former Soviet Republics, which theoretically speaking should be on par with regard to competence, displayed varied responses to COVID-19. Except of familiar outliers like Belarus, where President Lukashenko went as far as holding the Victory Day Parade on May 9, or Turkmenistan, where the word “coronavirus” itself has been limited notwithstanding, openness levels tend not to be dramatically different though.

Beyond the Omnipotent Competency?

“The WJP Rule of Law Index 2020” gives strikingly similar estimates for “Open Government” factors for the Russian Federation (0.49), Kazakhstan (0.46) and even the PR China (0.43). The countries also perform similarly when it comes to people’s “Right to Information”: with Russia scoring 0.40, Kazakhstan 0.45 and China 0.49.

While Chinese handling of the epidemiological situation is still debated, it is clear that with the number of active cases at the moment slightly below 100, China has (at the very least) passed its first viral wave. At the same time, while both Kazakhstan and Russia are now easing up restrictions, it should be noted that Kazakhstan was significantly faster to respond. On March 15, 2020, President Tokayev already announced the State of Emergency, while Russia was still discussing the calls of businessman Oleg Deripaska to close down the country for sixty days as mere tales of a mogul, whose “Rusal” assets were once exposed to the Ebola threat.

While President Putin made his first own announcement on March 25, numbers do not lie. What might seem like a mere ten days on the calendar, ends up making a significant difference between 1,571 confirmed COVID-19 cases per one million of population in Russia and 277 per one million in Kazakhstan. It also means the difference between 14 deaths per million (and counting) in Russia and 2 per million in Kazakhstan (which so far favourably compares to the Chinese number of 3 deaths per million).

This difference is less an upshot of competencies. After all, we have heard about Russian military doctors helping Italy to respond to COVID-19 just as much as about Chinese doctors providing consultancy services in various regions outside China. With “Government Openness” and “Right to Information” scores also being roughly the same between these three countries, are we missing something else here?

In State We Trust?

The OECD defines open government strategies and initiatives as those “based on principles of transparency, integrity accountability and stakeholder participation”.

If we focus on Kazakhstan’s response to COVID-19, there was certainly greater transparency than someone would expect. The government did not only hold regular press conferences to update the public, it also started distributing rather uncomfortable information early on. On April 6, Kazakhstan’s Chief Sanitary Doctor Aizhan Esmagambetova confirmed that every fifth person infected with the novel coronavirus was a medical professional. Furthermore, despite this information causing a significant amount of frenzy among the public, the government continued disclosing such information to ensure transparency and to build trust. For example, Esmagambetova informed that some 127 medical employees were confirmed as infected on April 21, alone bringing the total number of infected medical workers to reported 652 by that time.

This pursuit of transparency was accompanied by a tendency towards accountability. After the Minister of Health apologised to Kazakhstanis for (uninfected) “Diamond Princess” passengers being flown back home on a commercial flight, a trend for greater accountability has started. For example, after the former Chief Sanitary Doctor of Kazakhstan, Zhandarbek Bekshin, had an unfortunate slip of tongue stating that “somewhere around March 11-16, we expect coronavirus to finally arrive to the country” [emphasis added], he was dismissed after being widely memed online. However, such a swift approach to accountability and reputation management was eventually softened. When a month later Kazakhstan’s Minister of Labour and Social Security, Bizhan Nurymbetov, had a similarly ridiculed moment regarding the refusals of lockdown unemployment benefits, it went no further than a few jokes online.

As for integrity, Kazakhstan has managed to skip the talks about “herd immunity” and moved straight to protecting public health and the health system, being one of the first post-Soviet countries to declare a State of Emergency. Although it was widely discussed whether the lockdown unemployment benefit of 42,500 Kazakh tenge per month (about 93 Euro) was sufficient to survive, it is important to note that people were not left to their own devices and over 4.4 million citizens successfully received such payments.

Perhaps, the most troublesome part of this quartet of factors defining “open governance” was stakeholder participation. As one knows all too well from covering environmental issues, Kazakhstanis tend to gravely underestimate the significance of individual actions. Any calls to take responsibility for personal behaviour and conduct tend to be perceived as an attempt to turn corporate and/or governmental responsibility into a public one. Two weeks after declaring the State of Emergency, over 1,500 people were charged with administrative offences for breaching the lockdown rules. Now, when the State of Emergency has been lifted but quarantine measures still remain, individuals can no longer be charged. Yandex’s “Isolation Index” has dropped drastically all over the country. On a scale, where 5 constitutes empty streets and 0 constitutes jam-packed ones, Almaty and Nur-Sultan scored 2.3 and 2.0 respectively as of May 12. Almaty scored as high as 4.4 when people knew they could be charged with an administrative offence.

Too Little Trust?

It does not matter much if or how rapidly responding, competent, transparent, or open the government tries to be on this occasion, if there is one fundamental thing lacking: public trust. Back in February, when there was still no confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in the country yet, residents of of the village of Akzhar on the Chinese border demanded that Kazakhstan stopped accepting freight from China (despite a intricate quarantine system put in place for truck drivers). Back then, people refused to believe that Kazakhstan was still “corona-free”. It was also then that quite a few people were charged for spreading rumours about supposed COVID-19 cases in Kazakhstan.

Yet, as soon as Kazakhstan started detecting its first coronavirus cases, public trust did a 180 turn. On May 1, 30 patients who experienced asymptomatic infections tried walking out of the hospital in Uralsk and demanded to be discharged. This time around people were convinced there was no infection whatsoever. As people heard about a 6 trillion Kazakh tenge rescue package to fight the novel coronavirus, it has become easier for many to lose themselves in the maze of conspiracy theories about corruption and calculate the potential degrees of separation from infected locals in messenger chats than to accept the COVID threat as real and trust government advice.

Instead, the way Kazakhstan is easing up the restrictions feels more like a government response to popular public demand than a response to what pandemic management demands right now. For example, after a brief period of asking that all passengers get tested for COVID-19 before flying to other cities, this requirement is now being lifted entirely. It should be noted, that this change came about just two days after the Minister of Healthcare, Elzhan Birtanov, reported that this testing requirement has allowed to detect ten cases of infection. Many of the businesses that could very well continue working remotely (e.g. professional, consulting and accounting services, insurance) or operate through online delivery (e.g. flower shops) are now allowed to resume in-person operations.

In these challenging times, the leaders across the globe increasingly realise that, as Deloitte’s recent report puts it, a “trusted leader[ship] is most often a resilient leader[ship]”. As we are easing the restrictions, it is now more important than ever to keep in mind that trust is not just earned by meeting the direct demands of one’s stakeholders. If the objective is to build lasting trust, we need to view trust as an intricate ecosystem.

Featured image: Yakov Fedorov via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0 / image cropped